Four-Views books—or Three-Views or Five-Views—are now so popular that it’s difficult to remember a time when they didn’t exist. Dozens of such titles have been published in the past thirty(??) or so years. The format of multiple-views books will be familiar to many reading this blog: Four (or three or five) prominent theological representatives on a contested topic are invited to write. Each contributor is assigned a page limit within which to summarize and argue his or her position on a given topic. Following the presentation of the first essay, the other contributors respond to the first contributor’s position, and so on throughout the second and third (…and fourth…and, yikes! sometimes even fifth…) essay. An editor normally provides framing perspectives in an introduction and summaries in a conclusion. Such introductions and conclusions are sometimes the most helpful aspects of the book.
Honestly, I love multiple-views books (and recently finished reading two more of such books). The format allows me to learn about a topic from representatives who argue for whatever view they happen to hold from their own convicted perspectives. Best of all, such books allow me to read a 30-40 page presentation, without having to read three, or four, or five separate books. I also love the repartee that each response represents. (Personally, when I read such books, I sometimes start by reading the introduction, then the conclusion, followed by the responses, and finally only read the essays themselves if I’m still engaged! But don’t tell the authors…)
I like this format so much that a number of years ago, I joined with my colleague, Jon Lunde, to edit a three-views book.
But there is a problem. Increasingly I’m convinced that the problem is not minor.
Multiple-views books present as serious options positions that are sometimes either on the fringe of historic Christianity or (as this genre has developed) sometimes outside of its doctrinal boundaries altogether. Such books give the impression that each represented position is a legitimate view worthy of defense by a prominent author—and worthy of serious consideration by a reader.
Let me be clear. I do not think that trying to persuade evangelical readers of non-evangelical positions is even remotely the intention of evangelical publishers who publish such books (more on the “evangelical” part in a moment). They are trying to serve their readers. Such publishers recognize the value of Christians learning multiple views on theological topics, and, furthermore, the value of people “listening” to such views from proponents themselves. These publishers are acutely aware that modern readers have limited time to read, and so are trying to provide a valuable service by offering readable essays of multiple views written by people who actually hold those views.
But since most multiple-views books on theological topics are published by evangelical publishers (that is, publishing houses founded upon biblically-rooted doctrinal statements in agreement with historic Christianity), this is where it becomes problematic. Readers are accustomed to evangelical publishers publishing, well…evangelical books. Multiple-views books distributed by evangelical publishers, by their very nature, subtly suggest that the positions espoused by contributing authors are, if not at the center of evangelicalism, at least evangelical options. But since such books increasingly include positions that never were, and never will be evangelical options (unless we permit the word “evangelical” to mean something different than it has ever meant), this is at least somewhat disconcerting.
What should be done about this? Honestly, I am conflicted about what publishers should do. I have already been forthcoming about my own appreciation of the format, and have every intention of continuing to read such books. I also think it necessary for Christians to become conversant with theological positions with which they do not agree—even positions with which they strongly disagree. Consequently, if any publishers are reading this blog post right now—and I know some of you do read this blog (thanks so much!)—please receive my heart-felt appreciation for the good work you are doing in trying to serve the needs of your readers.
Let me repeat, I am unsure about what publishers should do about this going forward. But I do know what evangelical readers should do. Evangelical readers henceforth should not assume that positions appearing in multiple-views books are evangelical options. Rather, they should read essays in such books as positions worth knowing about, but that need to be carefully weighed against the teaching of Scripture. In other words, Christian readers should read such books with a critical eye; and considering recent trends in the publishing of such books, should read with an increasingly critical eye.
This is not a call to retreat into a fundamentalist cave and only read books and articles by people with whom you agree. I hope that you as a reader will benefit from sorting out your own theological positions as you read multiple-views books. But be forewarned that if the multiple-views publishing trend continues, you will need to approach such books with increasing care.